Hitchcock Takes Over the Blues

Ken Hitchcock with Jason Arnott and David Backes (Getty Image/Mark Buckner)

To see the original article from Missouri Sports Magazine, follow this link: http://missourisportsmag.com/?p=40651

ST. LOUIS, MO. (Joe Richter, Missouri Sports Magazine) – If you don’t think the St. Louis Blues are serious about winning, just ask Davis Payne.  If there’s an automatic positive out of the Blues relieving their head coach, Payne, of his duties, fans won’t have to put up with all the bad puns from sportswriters (and “House of Payne” puns from marketers).  There’s another positive: Payne’s replacement, Ken Hitchcock, is a winner.

My initial reaction upon hearing the news Sunday night of Payne’s release was “wow, the Blues aren’t messing around.”  They obviously want to reward their fans for continuing to support the team despite years of playoff absences.  Blues GM Doug Armstrong went out and added lots of playoff-experienced players such as Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner to supplement the young talent.  And now they added a coach with the same credibility.

The numbers don’t lie.  Hitchcock brings a career record of 534-350-88-70 (for a .588 winning percentage) to the Blues.  He won the Stanley Cup in 1999.  His teams have accrued more than 100 points in a season an astonishing eight times – and many of those were before the current procedure of shootout winners getting two points, instead of settling for a one-point tie.  Hitchcock has six division titles, as well as nine 40-win seasons.  Are you convinced yet?

Ok, chew on this, then.  When asked about what it will take to fix the Blues power play problems (last in the NHL), he said, “One practice.”  I got chills.

Davis Payne has given us some good hockey since taking over; he leaves the Blues with a 67-55-15 record (6-7-0 this year, with most of those games on the road).  At the age of 41, he was one of the youngest coaches in the league.  At age 59, Hitchcock is now the second-oldest coach in the league.  Age isn’t the end-all for a coach, but experience might be – especially in the playoffs.

Not that there was a lot of nonsense going on with Payne as coach, but a no-nonsense coach (Hitchcock) is exactly what a young team needs.  Former Blues star and Stanley Cup winner with Hitchcock’s ’99 Dallas Stars, Brett Hull, expressed that very sentiment.  Hey, if he got Hullie to change his game to fit his system, I would hope he can get the best out of players like Patrik Berglund, TJ Oshie, and Chris Stewart – who have underachieved at times this season.  Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets is a perfect example of a Hitchcock getting a young player to blossom under his tutelage.

Another aspect of Hitchcock is his ability to get the best out his goalies.  And if there’s anything the Blues need more, let me know.  Jaroslav Halak has been perhaps the biggest underachiever on the team.  True, the team hasn’t played its best in front of him, but we all know Halak is better than he has played.  Looking at some of the goalies that Hitchcock has worked with, they have had some of their best seasons under his system.

We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves; the Blues have a long season staring them in the face.  It will take time to really get things together for the new coach.  But five games in a row at home, along with six of their next seven, should give “Hitch” a chance to get organized.

At least he might be able to fix that blasted power play.  And at least he might be able to make the team serious about a playoff run.  The fans are serious, and now the Blues proved they’re just as serious.  It’s time to win.

From the Bleachers of Game 6 – A Personal Recollection of a Fan

Native St. Louisan, and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer, Yogi Berra said it best of Game 6, “Boy that was exciting.  I always say it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, but that one should’ve been over a while ago.”

To be honest, Yogi, the Cardinals season should’ve be over a while ago.  But, as Joe Buck said on the Game 6 telecast, the Cardinals “just won’t go away.”

When Game 6 of the 107th World Series was postponed, it sent several fans’ schedules into a tizzy.  Some people who could make it Wednesday, couldn’t on Thursday.  By someone else’s misfortune, this author was able to go.  I didn’t have to sit in the pressbox with all our venerable authors in St. Louis; I got to sit with the true fabric of the city – its far more venerable baseball fans in the bleachers.

Between the shirtless morons and the MC Hammer-type red pinstripe suits, there were the fans who’ve agonized with the team over last couple months as they’ve all but stopped our hearts.  While all those mentioned added to the fun, it was the fans who’ve never been to a World Series game in person that deserved the kind of game they saw.  It was the kind of game that requires the line score to truly make sense of what really happened.

In the bleachers there were no “Glee” actors leaving after the fourth inning.  In the bleachers there were no former heads of state.  In the bleachers there were diehards hell-bent on every pitch.  There were folks who just couldn’t sit down; personally, that worked better for me, as my legs would not stop shaking.  Because of my obvious nerves, my friend told me to remind him never to be in a foxhole with him.

I sat in section 527, a stone’s throw away from the “grassy knoll” in centerfield.  Behind me and to my right was a female with a great sign – “He told me I could have an engagement ring, or World Series Tickets.  I’m here!”

In the end, I’m pretty sure she made the right decision.  In fact, we’re all glad we were there – whether we were at the game, at a local establishment, or just at home with our families.  It was a game not easily forgotten.  If someone turned the play-by-play into a Hollywood script, the studio heads and critics would say it’s too unbelievable.  They’d say, “Rewrite it without the hometown boy going from the goat with two errors to hero with two comeback hits; that’s just silly, and would never happen.”

I’m not going to give you stats in this column; I’m only going to give you emotions.  To me, that’s what this game was about.  I sat with two of my best friends – neither of whom had ever experienced the World Series in person.  They couldn’t be more different.  One is the loudest jerk I ever heard at a sporting event – born in another city, St. Louis is now his home, and the Cardinals have been his team for years.  The other is the diehard baseball purist who lives and dies with every pitch and swing by his beloved Cardinals – born and raised in St. Louis, he’s known nothing other than cheering for the birds on the bat.

The loud jerk, as I’ll refer to him, was suddenly best friends with the fan next to him; it’s funny how a dramatic baseball game can bring complete strangers together like it did Thursday.  The diehard, as I’ll refer to him, was in his own baseball world – seemingly bothered when his friends interrupted his concentration.

The entire section went nuts when Lance Berkman’s homerun landed just a few feet away from my seat.  But no matter if you were the loud jerk or the diehard, the errors the Cardinals made as the Rangers took a lead buried our heads in our hands.  The Cardinals, though, just would not go away.

Fans in the section nearly turned on the loud jerk at one point.  David Freese had a pop fly hovering over him.  The loud jerk screamed, “Don’t drop it!”  As if Freese heard him from the bleachers, he did the opposite.  Fans turned to him in sheer anger, as if the loud jerk had dropped the ball himself.  Things looked bleak.  The diehard said, “We’re embarrassing the franchise in an elimination game.”  He later added, after Matt Holliday was picked off of third base with only one out, that the performance was “an abomination.”  He wasn’t alone.  Homers from Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz, followed by an RBI single by the impressive Ian Kinsler, turned the crowd to desperation.  The Cardinals, though, just would not go away.

This was erroneously reported before the Cards comeback

In the bottom of the seventh, hope was granted to the fans by Allen Craig.  “Torty”, nicknamed after his pet tortoise, hit a bomb to left field to bring the Cardinals back within two runs.

The Cardinals were down by two runs with three outs left to their season.  The flame-throwing Texas closer, Neftali Feliz, came in to give the Rangers their first-ever Championship.  The Ranger fans in our section had been vocal throughout the game.  They seemed to be quieter in the ninth.  It was as if they knew it wouldn’t be easy to end the season of the team whose season would never end.

Everyone was on their feet in Section 527.  If you weren’t standing, you weren’t alive.  The Cardinals needed to stay alive.  Feliz had two strikeouts in the inning, but had allowed a double to Albert Pujols and a walk to Lance Berkman.  Then the Hollywood script too unbelievable to even be a movie began to write itself.  David Freese had two strikes.  The Rangers were one strike away from a World Series title.  But the Cardinals just would not go away.  Freese blasted a triple off the wall over Nelson Cruz’s head, scoring Pujols and Berkman to tie the game.  The word “pandemonium” comes to mind when thinking back to our section.  The diehard traded his intense countenance for an ecstatic one.  The loud jerk was getting high fives and hugs from the fans who had given the look of death after the Freese error.  Me?  My legs were shaking even though I was standing – I didn’t know that was physically possible.

Then the tenth inning came around.  The Rangers made a statement about how great their ballclub really is.  They scored two more runs to make it 9-7 off a homer by the guy whose power was supposedly absent – Josh Hamilton.  Hope, once again, seemed to dissipate.  Fans looked to each other to commiserate their pain.  The Cardinals were three outs from having the season end.  The Cardinals, though, just won’t go away.

John Jay had been 0-for-16 in the World Series, but got his first hit of the Series in the eight.  In the tenth, those 16 at-bats without a hit were forgotten.  As far as Cardinals fans were concerned, Jay was 2-for-2 after he followed Daniel Descalso’s single with one of his own.  Kyle Lohse – a pitcher – bunted them over.  Ryan Theriot then drove Descalso in, and brought the Cardinals within one.  Hope…

The “Gray Bush”, “Big Puma”, “Extra-Medium Puma”, whatever you want to call him, Lance Berkman did it again.  He drove Jay in with a single to center, erupting 527 and the rest of the stadium with a single swing of the bat.  When he returned to the outfield, he was compelled to tip his cap to the fans that never stopped believing in their beloved ‘birds.

I don’t remember sitting down, at all, in the final innings.  I don’t remember the count.  I don’t remember how many outs there were.  What I do remember was David Freese at the plate.  “There’s no way he can do it again,” I thought.  Freese drove the ball to centerfield.  I became Mike Shannon, yelling, “Get up, baby; get up!”  For me, the ball seemed to stay up for an eternity.  And then it landed.  Just a few yards away from me, the ball landed in the “grassy knoll”.  Pandemonium?  No, that’s not good enough.  There’s no way to describe it in words.

I guess the only way to describe it is as Joe Buck did, “The Cardinals just won’t go away.”

And now it’s Game 7.  Two great clubs and two incredible sets of fans – Cardinals and Rangers fans – will be there.  No matter what happens, no one is a loser.  The two cities should be proud of their teams, and the way that diehards, loud jerks, and fans of all kinds for these teams (along with a sports writer with the night off) came together to make a mere sporting event a night to truly remember.

Oh, and Yogi?  We’re all glad it’s not over.

Rangers fans deserve better...

Jackson vs. Marcum Round 2

Edwin Jackson hopes to take the Cardinals to the World Series tonight

Link to the original article on Missouri Sports Magazine:  http://missourisportsmag.com/?p=38385

ST. LOUIS, MO. (Joe Richter, Missouri Sports Magazine) – In Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, the St. Louis Cardinals took a 3-2 series lead on the Milwaukee Brewers – their 16th straight getaway game win.  The Cardinals beat the Brewers 7-1 in front of a crowd of 46,904 in St. Louis.

Now each team’s fate lies in the hands of two pitchers who wouldn’t be considered their “ace”.  The two pitchers faced each other in Game 2 of the NLCS, with the Cardinals winning 12-3.  Sunday is Round 2.

On Sunday, Cardinal RHP Edwin Jackson will get his third start of the postseason (1-0, 3.48 ERA).  Jackson was acquired by the Cardinals in July as part of a three-team trade with the Chicago White Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays.  Since becoming a Cardinal, Jackson solidified the rotation and allowed native St. Louisan Kyle McClellan (Hazelwood West High) to shore up the (at the time) ailing bullpen.  As a Cardinal, Jackson went 5-2, with a 3.58 ERA – and showed resiliency by getting out of jams.  In the playoffs, Jackson is 1-0 with a 3.48 ERA.  11 out of 14 times in taking the mound for the Cardinals, Jackson has allowed fewer than three runs.  In Game 2 in Milwaukee, Jackson went 4.1 innings, allowing 7 hits, 1 walk, and 2 earned runs.  Much like Garcia did early in Game 5, Jackson will need to keep the ball down in the strike zone.  He relies on his mid-90s four-seam fastball and hard slider.

Game 6 starter, Shaun Marcum, is 0-2 and has a 12.46 ERA in his two starts in the postseason.  For a team that has been applauded for their work at home this season (61-27 regular season and postseason combined), Shaun Marcum is the oddball – he actually pitched better on the road (8-3, 2.21 ERA).  Marcum was 5-4, with a 4.81 ERA at home in the regular season.  Marcum has given up 30 runs in his last 32 innings, and 12 runs in his last 8.2 innings.  The Brewers lost 12-3 in Marcum’s last start, Game 2 of the NLCS.  But he won 13 games in the regular season, and shouldn’t be underestimated.  Brewer manager Ron Roenicke said, “We expect a real good game from Shaun.”  Roenicke elaborated, saying, “The first two months of the season, he was probably our best pitcher.”  In April, Marcum was 3-1, with a 2.21 ERA.  Much like Randy Wolf did in Game 4, Marcum will need to get ahead in the count, change his speeds, and have command of his pitches.

In Game 5, Cardinal hitters had a good night at the plate (the first seven lineup spots all had hits), but the four errors by the Brewers might have made the difference.  The Cardinals bullpen was the real star of the game, shutting down the Brewers sluggers in 4.1 innings of work – allowing only two hits and one walk (all by RHP Lance Lynn).  The Cardinals went 4-for-15 with runners in scoring position; Milwaukee was 1-for-8.

“It’s a group effort,” Matt Holliday said of how his team just won’t let their season end.  “It’s never one guy.  We’ve just been finding ways to win, and hopefully we can find a way to win five more.”

In the NLCS, Cardinal starters have a 6.04 ERA in 22.1 innings pitched, while the bullpen pitchers have a 1.69 in 21.1 innings.  The Cardinals have a 3.99 ERA in the postseason, and have hit .279.  The Brewers have given up 5.38 ERA in the postseason, and have hit .258.

The Cardinals want to have another “happy flight” home.  The Brewers just don’t want to go home for offseason.

Game 6 is Sunday, 7:05 CDT, at Miller Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Former Cardinal Colby Rasmus (traded for Jackson) is wondering, "Dang, if only..."

Arnott’s Fountain of Youth

Jason Arnott celebrates a Blues goal he assisted on Oct. 10th (Mark Buckner/Getty Images)

Link to the original Missouri Sports Magazine article. http://missourisportsmag.com/?p=37943

ST. LOUIS, MO. (Missouri Sports Magazine) – Blues GM Doug Armstrong knew that if the team truly planned to make the playoffs this year, he had better add some players to the roster that have actually played in the playoffs.  So he added 343 career playoff games to the roster by adding Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, Scott Nichol, Brian Elliot, and Kent Huskins.  Before the offseason, the entire Blues roster had only 131 career playoff games.

With experience, though, usually comes age.  The first player mentioned there, Arnott, turns 37 on Tuesday, October 11, 2011.  But he doesn’t look like he’s lost a step.  In the first two Blues games, Arnott has scored a goal in each, and added an assist in Monday’s afternoon matinee against the Calgary Flames.  His faceoff winning percentage has been off the charts, as well, at nearly 66 percent.  After having a down year offensively last season, Arnott is telling everyone he still has a lot of hockey left in him.

His new linemates, puck-master Alex Steen and gritty winger Matt D’Agostini are only making it easier for him to prove himself.  “They’re easy guys to play with,” Arnott said, underscoring how well Steen and D’Agostini have connected with him.  Steen set up Arnott’s first of the year on Saturday, and Arnott returned the favor on Monday on Steen’s first.

With all that experience (and now 37 years) under his belt, Arnott knows this team has a long way to go – including eight of their next nine games on the road.  And he’s glad he can here to help lead the Blues back to the promised land of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Blues next play on Thursday, October 13 at 7:30 CDT against the Dallas Stars in Dallas, Texas, at the American Airlines Center.

BLUES NOTES

  • Blues defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo was put on the Injured Reserve List, injured on an inadvertent trip by Nashville Predator rookie defenseman Blake Geoffrion in the second period of Saturday’s home opener.  It is classified as an “upper body injury”.
  • The Blues have claimed Edmonton Oiler defenseman Taylor Chorney, 24, off waivers.  Chorney, the 6-1, 189-pound defenseman has played in 56 career National Hockey League games (1g, 7pts).  He scored four points in twelve games last season.  Chorney was originally drafted 36th overall (second round) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.
  • Defenseman Kent Huskins made his Blues debut Monday afternoon, finishing a +3 in the game (18:48 ice time).
  • Monday was the first time the Blues have scored 5 goals against Calgary since 2003.

Matchup for the Ages (from Missouri Sports Magazine)

Teammates tell Chris Carpenter "Thanks!"

ST. LOUIS, Mo. (Joe Richter, Missouri Sports Magazine) – http://missourisportsmag.com/?p=37488

It was a matchup for the ages – the team favored to get to the World Series and the team that didn’t belong there.  And it was a pitching matchup for the ages.

The pitchers were old friends, and two of the best pitchers in the last decade.  Chris Carpenter took the mound for the St. Louis Cardinals against Roy “Doc” Halladay for the Philadelphia Phillies.  The similarities were many – same height and weight, same draft round (by the same team), both have won Cy Young Awards…and both have pitched a masterpiece in an elimination game.

It didn’t matter if you’re in Philadelphia or at home in St. Louis, the tension was contagious.  That’s what a great pitching matchup between two great teams will do.  With the winner heading to the National League Championship Series, every pitch was hanging in the balance.  And when it came down to it, one run was all it took.  One great pitcher was just a little greater than the other.

Rafael Furcal led off the game with a triple – the only player in Major League Baseball history to do so in two playoff games (and did it in one series).  After working the count, Skip Schumaker drove him in on a long line drive to right field.  It was all the Cardinals needed.

Several great defensive plays helped Carpenter complete his masterpiece, including a Nick Punto play in the eighth that ended an inning where the Phillies were threatening.  Punto also applied a perfect slap tag on a stolen base attempt in the sixth inning by Chase Utley (who made a great play, himself, to catch Schumaker advancing on an Albert Pujols grounder).  Furcal made several plays that made Carpenter seemingly indomitable – including the play in the bottom of the eighth where he dove through the middle to rob Carlos Ruiz of what could have been a game-changing hit.

Schumaker said it best about the matchup, “I think (Halladay) hung one pitch, and that was it; and I was lucky enough to get the RBI.”  While respecting Halladay and the Phillies, Schumaker marveled at Carpenter’s performance.  He said, “You had a feeling that Carp was going to be on his game.  You want your best guy against their best guy, and see what happens.”

There was a mutual respect between the teams and their starters.  The scene in the locker room had an infectious happiness – the Cardinals were supposed to be out of the race in August.  Pujols said amidst the Niagara Falls of beer and champagne (under which the Cardinals no goggles), “Philadelphia has a great ballclub… we just played a little bit better game than they did.”

St. Louis native Ryan Howard made the final out of the game, a complete game by Chris Carpenter (9 innings, 3 hits, 0 walks).  Both teams were worried for him as he hurt himself leaving the batter’s box on the play.  The injury was reported as a severe ankle sprain.

The Cardinals will play the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 1 of the NLCS.  Game time Sunday is 3:05 CDT on TBS.

 

Jack is Back! Rams – Redskins Preview

It's time for the Rams to start smiling again

The Rams are 0-3.  They’ve been outscored 96 – 36.  They’ve given up 12 sacks in three weeks.  They’re leading the league in penalties.  The vultures are circling.

Everyone’s favorite racially insensitive team-name, the Washington Redskins, will send their war-party to the Dome on Sunday.  But will the Rams get scalped?  This author thinks not.

OK, I’m done with the puns (maybe)…

The Redskins are a tough team.  They have won some close games through heart alone.  Big plays at the right time – such as Redskins Defensive End Ryan Kerrigan’s interception early in the first half against the New York Fakers…I mean…Giants in Week 1 – have given the momentum in games, which they never gave back.  This will be a key on Sunday.  The Rams have to play smarter.  And, due to the law of averages, they will.

Forget about the game against the Ratbirds (Baltimore Ravens).  The Rams were overmatched and underprepared. They didn’t have the proper speed in their backfield to cover Torrey Smith, and they didn’t think the Ratbirds could fly so well – with Joe Flacco taking it to the air nearly 50 times for 389 yards.

Early in the first two games, however, the Rams were competing well against good teams – maybe even outplaying them.  Then disaster happened.  Against Philadelphia, the Eagles didn’t exactly have control of the game.  The Rams and Eagles were tied at seven when Sam Bradford was tripped up by his own center, fumbling the ball and giving the Eagles the lead and momentum that they retained for the rest of the game.  Against the Giants, the failed lateral pass to Cadillac Williams that led to the touchdown for the G-Men was all it took to bring the Rams down.  This cannot happen.

Cadillac Williams want to make amends

What else can’t happen?  Bad penalties.  But teams cannot play fearful of getting penalized, as Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo said.  “I don’t harp on the negative things,” Spags said on Friday. “You know that. But there are two sheets that I put up on the overhead in training camp. One of them is the effect of turnovers in winning or losing. And the other one is the effect of penalties on an offensive drive or a defensive series and the percentages are so glaring. Funny you should mention that because I put those two sheets up this morning. But when I put it up I always say to them it’s just a piece of paper. It’s a bunch of stats, that doesn’t change anything. So I always follow it up with how do you avoid them? What do you do? You move your feet. Corners keep your hands low, so you don’t get hands to the face. So we talk more about that. Other than that it’s go out and play. The thing you don’t want a team to do is to play scared. We go out there and worry about just getting penalties I don’t think we’re going to hit anybody, so there is a fine line.”

But most of all the Rams need to get their swagger back.  That desperately needed swagger will return Sunday, and he’ll be wearing #39.  Nothing makes a team facing a great pass rush better than having an All-Pro Running Back in your lineup.  And, ladies and gentlemen, Jack is back!  Rams RB Steven Jackson is not questionable; he’s not probable.  He’s going to play.  On Thursday, he said, “I’m definitely hoping that last week to this week will change drastically in my playing time. Ultimately we’ve got to do what’s best for the team and whatever the game situation presents, and, for whatever it is, I’m definitely preparing myself to be out there.”

Jack is back, baby!

And this changes everything about the game – the Rams and Redskins will have to adjust their gameplans.  Former Ram and current Redskin Middle Linebacker London Fletcher knows Jackson’s return allows the Rams to make their offense more versatile, and thus harder to play against.  Fletch said, “(The Rams) come at you with a bunch of different formations, personnel and things like that. Excellent play-action pass. Steven Jackson is obviously one of the elite backs in the game. He’s been slowed down since the first week because of the injury he had, but he’s a dominant back. They’ve got some good personnel and good offensive linemen. We’ll have our work cut out for us.”

But it won’t be an easy day for Jackson and the Rams offense.  First off, the Rams won’t be giving him 20-30 plays, like his usual workload.  In addition, the Redskins are certainly a challenge – proven last week by keeping the Dallas Cowboys from scoring a touchdown (the Cowboys were able to put up six field goals for the win, however).  Jackson said, “(The Redskins) have some great linebackers. I believe that’s the strength of their defense, is the linebacker corp. London Fletcher, year in and year out he shows why he is a Pro Bowler and why he is the leading tackler in the last decade. I have a lot of respect for his game and what he brings. They have playmakers on the outside with their cornerbacks and (Safety LaRon) Landry, he’s a thumper. He likes to be in the box. So all three levels, they present challenges that we have to be up for. They’re going to be really aggressive. Just got to make sure than we hone in and trust our responsibilities of the offense and everything play itself out.”

It’s time for the Rams to step up and prove they are truly the best team in the NFC West (not that that is saying much), as others believed prior to the season.  I don’t want to pull a Dan Shaughnessy here, but this is the week the Rams lose the collar.  They don’t have to be the first 5-11 team in NFL playoff history; they can be the first 6-10 or second 7-9 team.  I’m not joking.  They could still be better.  Don’t trust what happens in September.  It’s a long season.

Roger Saffold and the O-Line needs to step up

The Redskins have a good pass rush; but so do the Rams.  And Redskins Quarterback Rex Grossman has the mobility of Marc Bulger with a broken leg.  The Rams will bring the pressure.  Also, as Rams fans know of Jim Haslett, his defenses love to send the house – all or nothing.  The offensive line of the Rams must step up this week to prove why they make Bank of America exec money, or we’ll have to start charging them for their accounts.  Rams Quarterback Sam Bradford must find a way to check off blitzes – whether it is a quick pass to Jackson, or hot routes to receivers or Tight Ends Lance Kendricks or Michael Hoomanawanui.  The Rams must find a way to win.  And with the Redskins reeling off a loss to the Cowboys, and the heat taken off the Rams by the enthralling playoff run by the St. Louis Cardinals, this is their week.  Rams 23 – Redskins 20.

The vultures are circling, but it’s time the Rams fought them off.

Thanks for taking the time to read this; I hope you enjoyed it.

Thank You, Nyjer Morgan!

Nyjer Morgan says, "Time out; who made the playoffs?"

A couple things I wanted to mention about the Cardinals’ celebration on Wednesday night.  First, this team has proved their toughness.  To be 10.5 games down on August 25th, and to come all this way back, is a testament to that toughness.  And another example is how – unlike nearly every other team that has celebrated in this fashion – not a single player was wearing goggles despite the Niagara Falls of champagne and beer.  That’s tough.  Secondly, they were drinking Budweiser, not that sissy Bud Light or Bud Select, like real men.  Again, those are tough guys.

Next up – these are classy guys.  Jason Motte, and several other Cardinals, thanked Ryan Franklin.  And it was nice to see they appreciate the work that Jim Hayes and Al Hrabosky do by macerating them with beer.  I think that means they like them…

Now, let’s move on the “thank you” cards.  On behalf of everyone in St. Louis, thank you to Ryan Howard, Hunter Pence, Chase Utley, and the rest of the Philadelphia Phillies (especially to the manager, Charlie Manuel for keeping most of his stars in the final series).

Nyjer Morgan show us how happy he is to hear the Cards made the playoffs

And thank you very much to Nyjer Morgan!  The Cardinals were a different team after their last meeting with the Brewers, thanks to the Brewers’ “eccentric?” center fielder.  On September 13, 2011, I wrote about this:

“I know the 5-game winning streak was snapped on Monday night by the mighty (to the Cardinals) Pittsburgh Pirates.  But the Cards are still in it.  That’s right, I said it – they still have a chance to get into the playoffs.  And if they do, I think it’s all because of Brewers Center Fielder Nyjer Morgan.  He may be a player with crazy skills, but that might not be the only crazy thing about him.  I mean, we’ve all thrown our chaw at a pitcher that has struck us out, and made a fool of ourselves on television.  OK, maybe that’s just me.  But I don’t think any of us have called Albert Pujols a little girl.

Prince Fielder saves Morgan's life before Pujols can get close to him

You have to hand it to Morgan, he has more guts than brains.  Many have accused 6’3” 230 pound Albert Pujols of being surly at times, or thinking he’s ten times faster than he really is; but we would never call him feminine like Morgan did.  It’s like the old line by Gene Wilder from ‘Blazing Saddles’ that he said about the movie’s character, Mongo, ‘No, no; don’t do that.  If you shoot him, you’ll just make him mad.’

That might be exactly what Morgan did with the Pujols and the Cardinals.  Morgan might have lit the fire under the Cardinals that they needed.  They have been on a roll ever since.  And the Brewers are starting to look a bit more mortal.  After losing five games in a row, The Brew-Crew defeated the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday.  And they also got Rickie Weekes back.  But the Cardinals have a little more incentive to see them in the playoffs, now, and beat them.

Morgan offers his best smile over the Cards' chances

Thanks to the Florida Marlins’ Mike Stanton’s game-winning RBI single Monday night against the Braves, the Cards are only 4.5 games out of the wild card spot – and a ticket to a whole new season, the playoffs.”

I think we all need to send a “Thank You” card to Nyjer Morgan for lighting a fire under this team.

"What do you mean, 'Thank you'?"

Who’s the leader on this team?  It’s not Albert Pujols, it’s not Lance Berkman.  The leader on this team is Yadier Molina.  At the end of the celebration, it was Yadi who told his teammates that they’re not done.  They still have to go through Philly.  And, so, we can all start hating Philly again.  Somebody get out the batteries…it’s time to remember Philly is the city that booed Santa Claus.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go pop open a Budweiser.

Free Classy – O.J. Atogwe

O.J. Atogwe after an interception (AP Photo)

On Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Washington Redskins Free Safety Oshiomogho “O.J.” Atogwe will wear a different jersey, but he’ll also wear a heavy heart.  It wasn’t easy putting on that Redskins jersey for the first time.  Atogwe said, “It was an adjustment period. I’m not going to lie about it. It felt a little weird, a little foreign for a little while, just to have a jersey on that wasn’t a Rams jersey. It took a while to get the feeling of it, but now I’ve made my home here in Virginia and I embrace those colors with pride and integrity.”

Atogwe spent six years in St. Louis patrolling the Rams defense’s backfield – much to the chagrin of opposing quarterbacks.  In his time as a Ram, he played 88 games, amassed 393 tackles, 5 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, and 42 passes defended.  That number of 42 PDs is only that low, however, because Atogwe was busy snatching them for interceptions.  One of the world-class ballhawking safeties in the game, Atogwe picked off opposing quarterbacks 22 times in his career.  Only Charles Woodson and Ed Reed have created more turnovers since 2006, 43 and 39 respectively, compared to Atogwe’s 37 (21 INT, 16 FF).  All of those numbers are quite a testament to his game.  But the hallmark of Atogwe’s career is his world-class personality.

Atogwe intercepts a pass (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

Atogwe was born in Canada (Windsor, Ontario), where he was a high school track star, and an all-city basketball and football player.  After a four year career at Stanford University (he also starred in track for the school), Atogwe was drafted in the 3rd round, 66th overall, by the Rams in 2005.  2006 was his breakout season, with 75 tackles, 8 turnovers, and 10 PDs.  Ever since then, he and longtime friend, Cornerback Ron Bartell, were fixtures in the Rams backfield.  That is, until this offseason.

The Rams decided it wise to release Atogwe because of his hefty salary – in June 2010, Atogwe was signed to a 5 year, $32 million contract.  But new Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo’s system required him to play Strong Safety, diminishing Atogwe’s freedom to play more of a centerfield by forcing him to step up in the box more often.  Atogwe wasn’t playing to his strengths, and there was someone more suited for the system available in free agency – the dependable Quintin Mikell.  The Rams released him early enough to sign with another team before the lockout.

And the Redskins wasted no time in signing him.  Atogwe said, “I’d say it happened rather quickly. They got in touch with my agent and began talks shortly after I was released. Then we were able to have very productive conversations where they said what they liked, we said what we liked, and we were able to make it work.”

Atogwe celebrates with Ryan Kerrigan after the latter's TD against the Giants (AP Photo)

It was easier to transition to the Redskins scheme because Jim Haslett is the defensive coordinator.  Atogwe said, “It allowed me to be familiar with the defensive concepts. Coming in it was more a situation of learning the terminology and just also learning some of the nuances in a 3-4 defense. Once we got that out of the way it was back to playing football and having fun.”  And Atogwe was happy to be reunited with Haslett.  “It just feels good to be with Has,” he said, “very dear feelings for him. (I’m) just glad to be back with him.”

But it wasn’t easy to leave St. Louis.  He has the greatest respect and admiration of the Rams coaches, the General Manager, and his former teammates.  He said he had “No hard feelings whatsoever. The Rams gave me a wonderful opportunity. I had six wonderful years in St. Louis. I’m thankful for all they did. They have great people over there, and when you’re dealing with great people, it’s never personal. There’s a business side to this game that you have to respect, so I respect their business decisions and I pray for blessings for them as they go forward except for this Sunday. I send my love to (General Manager) Billy D. (Devaney) and Coach Spags (Spagnuolo) and all (those) boys up there.”  Again, the man is classy.

The feeling is mutual on the other sideline.  Spagnuolo said about Atogwe, “He’s the best, I love him. It’ll be great to see him. Relationships run deep in this league, at least I’ve always felt it was all about people and all about relationships. And that was a strong one, O.J. and I. Had a lot of tremendous moments here in the two years we were together, but we both know the business. Both of us understand it and I wish him well. I think he’s playing well. He’s on a good football team. That’s a good defense he’s working with. It’s good because, one of the reasons because he’s on it. I’m looking forward to seeing him, I am.”

Atogwe was especially dejected to hear about Bartell’s season-ending injury, something Rams fans can relate to.  “I was very sad,” he said.  “Me and Ron have talked quite a bit since then. I’m just happy that he is healthy and he is going to be able to be restored to great health and I’m just praying for him and his family.”

Atogwe and Ron Bartell break up a pass together (Getty Image/Otto Greule, Jr.)

But Bartell’s not his only friend on the Rams.  Atogwe sent trinkets to some of his former teammates to show how much he missed them – action figures.  “I sent a couple to the fellas,” Atogwe said. “Chris Long got one. I think I sent one to Jack (RB Steven Jackson). A couple other players may have got one – just little momentos.”  The action figures all said something about the player’s personality.  “Chris Long got Green Lantern, and Green Lantern’s character is very much based on having a lot of fun, being kind of a wild child, but having very strong will. That’s why I gave that to Chris Long. And then Jack got Wolverine. He’s one of the toughest guys I know especially after that 2008 season or 2009 season when he played with a jacked up back. That’s why Jack got that one.”

Another Redskin that Rams fans will love to see on Sunday is former Rams Middle Linebacker London Fletcher – but they won’t be glad to see him once the game starts.  At age 36, he should be on the downside of his career at his position.  Yet “Fletch” hasn’t missed a beat, still making it to the top ten in tackles in the NFL (and has done so since 2004).  Atogwe said, “Well, Fletch is such a standup guy, if he says it, that’s what it is. What he says goes. That’s the man right there. I just try to help the guys as much as possible, whether it’s conversations about a certain look that we’re seeing or certain techniques that we’re going to play in a certain coverage. I just try to bring confidence and I guess you would say a sense of peace where I go so players can just go out there and make plays and we can get these wins.”

Fletcher and Chris Neild sack Eli Manning (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Atogwe doesn’t take having a guy like Fletch as a teammate for granted.  “Really,” he said, “in a short while, having known him and been around him, I really look up to him. He’s a great man, a very blessed individual. He’s a great leader. He works hard day in and day out. He studies hard. He’s the type of player you want to play with and you want to play behind because you learn so much just having known him and you’re a better person having known him. I’m truly blessed.”

To be able to play at Fletch’s level for so long shows a lot about his character and conditioning, something Atogwe can only hope he can live up to.  He said, “To play that long means you’re really taking care of your body, you’re playing the game in a way that allows you longevity. It’s not afforded to everybody, and those who do make it and play that long means they’re doing things right.”

Redskins Head Coach Mike Shanahan thinks Fletch could play forever.  “Sure does,” he said. “He is playing at a very high level. You don’t really think about somebody’s age, you’re looking at their playing ability and he is playing very well.”  But Shanahan is also impressed with Atogwe. saying, “you’re dealing with a guy with the utmost character. You’re dealing with a great football player and I’m just glad he’s on our football team.”

Fletcher likes what Atogwe brings to the table on and off the field, appreciating his sometimes goofy personality off the field, and his excellent play on the field.  “O.J. is like a calming force back there. He can be one of the guys that really calm things down. He’s a very cerebral player. He’s a talented football player. You look at his ability to create takeaways. The Monday night game, it wasn’t a takeaway that he had, but they tried to hit a fade route into the end zone and he comes over the top and dislodges the ball from the receiver. So he’s an excellent football player. We’re fortunate to have him.”

It will be bittersweet for Fletcher to return to St. Louis, as well, despite how long it has been since he donned the blue and gold.  “It’s been 10 years since I’ve played with the Rams,” he said. “St. Louis and that organization, that was a special time and a special place. It will always be dear in my heart. To be able to accomplish what we accomplished there. The fans were great to me. I can remember there would be several banners throughout the dome with ‘Fletch fanatics’ signs. I used to love that. I mean, that got me going. As far as extra motivation, like I said it’s been 10 years, so my motivation now is go out and play well regardless of who it is.”

Fletcher tackles Ahmed Bradshaw (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

No matter how few points the Rams have put on the board thus far, Atogwe has faith that they’ll turn it around.  “They are an exciting offense,” he said.  “They had some nice, impressive drives against New York. They moved the ball very well up and down the field against them, just weren’t able to put points on the board. Had a lot of explosive plays that game. Same with the Philadelphia game, they were moving the ball very well and just weren’t able to finish it off. So we know they’re definitely capable of being productive if given the opportunity.”

Atogwe is really looking forward to Sunday’s game against the Rams.  It will be different to be on the other sideline, but other things won’t be that different to him.  He said, “It’s going to be like it’s always been: number 20 now out there making plays like he did when he was 21.”  And the man wearing that number 20 will still exude the kind of class he has for six years wearing number 21.

Thanks for being classy, and taking the time to read this.  Please leave a comment if you like.

Where’s the Aspirin?

Rams Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo didn't have much to be happy about Sunday.

“I don’t have an explanation,” Rams Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo said.  “I wish I did. If I had I would’ve solved it at halftime, but I don’t. I know one of the things, (the Ravens) came in with a little different approach then we thought. They were laying it down-field and they were successful at doing it. Had they missed a few of those maybe it would have been a little different.”  I hate to say it, Coach Spags, but probably not.

This should be a one-word column – “painful”.  But I’m not sure if I’m talking about the pain endured by Sam Bradford (16-32, 166 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) or Rams fans.  I could use another word – “pathetic”.  I know, after my last two columns following Rams games, you might have been reading this to get some positive thinking from me.  But I just cannot find anything positive about the game.  Let me think of something while you’re waiting for the play-by-play guy from CBS to pronounce Michael Hoomanawanui’s name correctly (he didn’t do it once).  Hey, if I can spell it, you should be able to pronounce it.

Chris Long recorded his 3rd sack of the season, and 2 QB hits like this one.

If there is a positive from the loss against the Baltimore Ravens, it’s that the game is over.  I’d like to say that the hard part of the season is over, but it isn’t.  There’s a lot more pain to go through.  The Rams proved that Sunday.

When you think of the Baltimore Ravens, or “Ratbirds” as they are affectionately known by some fans, you obviously think of defense.  Pro Bowlers abound on this side of the ball for the Ravens, including one of the best middle linebackers of all time, Ray Lewis.  He’s the kind of player that opposing running backs want to fake an injury like a New York Giant.  But I can’t think of any reason the offensive line of the Rams should not have shown up.  There’s too much money invested in a crew that’s supposed to protect Bradford to have him running for his life for 60 minutes.  Right tackle Jason Smith, chosen second overall in the 2009 NFL Draft, somehow made me miss Alex Barron.  It was a brutal day for him.  Coach Spags had to dump him for Adam Goldberg at one point in the game.  Spagnuolo said, “Jason, it appears, I’d have to see the film though, but he appeared to struggle a little bit today. It’s a little bit like a pitcher in baseball, doesn’t have his stuff some days. So he had a rough day.”

But let’s not blame Smith entirely.  Nobody on that line had a good game.  I don’t care about all the Pro Bowlers on the Ravens; these guys were taking holding penalties on 5-yard losses.

The offensive line, however, is not entirely to blame.  The defense was atrocious.  When asked what frustrated him most, Coach Spags said, “There’s a lot of things, too many probably.”

Jack is back, surely a positive for the Rams.

Running back Steven Jackson said, “We’re very disappointed. We have the talent. Coach and (General Manager Billy) Devaney have gone out and tried to make each and every position competitive so we could have the best guys on the field at all times. For these last three games, for whatever reason, we’ve continued to stump ourselves, continued to turn the ball over, continued not to execute, and it’s very frustrating because the hard work the guys have put in, especially during training camp, is not carrying over into the game. Each and every person, all we can do is look at each other or look at ourselves in the mirror and that’s where we can start, right there. It’s very frustrating, especially as a team leader. You want more, especially because you see the grind. You see what guys are putting in, and for whatever reason it’s just not happening for us on Sunday.”

I know the Ravens had a lot to prove after their loss, which Lewis and his teammates were trying hard to forget.  Lewis said last week, “You just go win or loss, 24-hour rule after it’s done. Then it’s done. We understand the corrections and the mistakes that were made, simple.”  He acted as if he didn’t see anything that happened in that previous game at all…which we’ve heard before.

Was it just me, or was Baltimore a little too excited to have that game so much in their control?  You’d think a lot of those guys were winning the Super Bowl against a good team, and not playing a reeling Rams team in Week 3.  They were up by 30 points and were still trying to air the ball out.  What, exactly, was the point of that?  The Ravens defense lived up to their nasty reputation, as well.  Jackson said, “I felt the Ravens’ defense were trying to be bullies. I felt they were trying to do an intimidation factor, and that’s not something that we’re going to be victims of.”

Joe Flacco took a big hit from Justin King, forcing a fumble.

If there is a silver lining, the Rams have only four more games to go until they actually get to play someone in their own division.  Then they might have a chance to win a game.  Three weeks ago, many Rams fans might have thought their team would have a chance to win some of these early games against challenging teams, such as the Washington game next week; but it doesn’t look like that right now.  The Rams couldn’t run the ball, they couldn’t throw the ball (until later in the game), they couldn’t stop the run, and they couldn’t stop the pass.  Oh, why don’t I just have Jim Mora tell the story…

The bright side is that the NFC West is so bad the Rams could come out of Week 8 with no wins (0-7), and still make the playoffs.  I’m starting to think that we might see the first 5-11 playoff team in NFL history.

The Rams have to hope that Steven Jackson can be healthy enough to get 20 carries for the rest of the season.  Also, Mark Clayton will rejoin the team in a few weeks.  The offense will get better, but the team has to find a way to protect Bradford.  The defense…well…they have to find someone who can cover a wide receiver.  Cornerback Bradley Fletcher has shown some positive strides, but he’s not going to be able to hang with Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald.  And lord knows just how ugly the games against the prolific passing arsenals of New Orleans and Green Bay will be.  I mean, we just watched Joe Flacco (Joe Flacco!) light up the secondary for 389 yards.  The pass rush has been OK, but the Rams are hoping they continue to improve.  Safety Quintin Mikell accurately said, “The bottom line is we got a lot of work to do, but we have the guys in this locker room that can do it.”

The Rams, overall, have to be better.  By the fourth quarter, all three of the games have been out of their grasp.  And the fans let them know they weren’t happy with the team, showering them with boos.  Bradford knew they deserved it.  “Yeah,” he said, “that’s frustrating. I understand where the fans are coming from. They expect more out of us. They deserve more out of us. We’ve got to give them more. We share their frustration.”  And the fans and Bradford shared a lot of pain.  Where’s the aspirin?  At least I can end on a good note…

Cheer up!

Nobody Cares About the Tuna

I’m listening to my readers, and they want more entertainment articles.  You have spoken, and here we go.  We’ve passed the time of the summer blockbuster, and it’s now time to get to the fall mini-busters.  Some new movies that weren’t quite big enough for summer, but just big enough for folks looking for a way to stay indoors on a cool weekend.  Let’s take a quick look at what’s new for this weekend (9/23/11).

Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in "Moneyball"

1)     “Moneyball”, starring Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Jonah Hill.  This is not the classic baseball movie.  Pitt stars as Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics General Manager in 2001 who turned Oakland baseball around through unorthodox maneuvers.  This is the guy who traded bulbous, steroid-infused Jeremy Giambi for the underrated, more versatile John Mabry (an ex-Cardinal).  Put it this way, he traded a guy who did commercials for hair products for a guy who got his hair cut at Great Clips.  Aaron Sorkin, the writer from “The West Wing” and “The Social Network” co-wrote the movie, so you know the dialogue should be good.  Sorkin is the guy who recently hurt himself reciting his own dialogue in front of the mirror – is that the first sign of insanity, or the first sign of a guy who can write great dialogue?  Overall, guys, it is about baseball, and it has Brad Pitt; so you might be able to talk your girlfriend/wife into giving it a chance.  That is, if you’re able to talk her into anything at all…

 

 

Jason Statham kicks more than Jean-Claude Van Damme these days

2)     “Killer Elite”, starring Robert De Niro, Clive Owen, and Jason Statham.  After Statham’s mentor gets abducted, he comes out of self-imposed exile to find him.  Statham reassembles his old team of British SAS commandos, but has to go through Owen’s own team of assassins to save his mentor.  Based on a true story, this might be the guy movie of the fall.  Put it this way, lots of guns and explosions; and with Jason Statham in it, which do you think there will be more of – crying or lots of kicking?

 

 

 

 

Taylor Lautner and Lily Collins in "Abduction"

3)     “Abduction”, starring Taylor Lautner, Alfred Molina, and Lily Collins.  “Twilight” star Lautner tries to piece his true life back together after seeing his face as a child on a website for missing persons.  A former martial arts champion as a youth, Lautner takes a swing at action.  I promise there are no vampires or werewolves in this one.  Directed by John Singleton, an underrated director who gave us “Boyz n the Hood” and “Higher Learning” (but we’re still trying to forget what he did to “Shaft”).

 

 

 

 

Ryan Gosling and Bryan Cranston in "Drive"

4)     “Drive”, starring Ryan Gosling, Bryan Cranston, and Albert Brooks.  I don’t get the fascination with Gosling, who was nominated for an Oscar in 2007.  To me, he’s as average as any Jennifer Aniston or Adam Sandler movie is – OK, probably not that bad.  But Bryan Cranston (“Malcolm in the Middle” and “Breaking Bad”) is always good.  Albert Brooks plays the villain, an interesting turn for the guy who usually plays the neurotic weenie (“Taxi Driver” and “Broadcast News”).  I admit I am intrigued by that.  Also, Ron Perlman (“Hellboy” and “Sons of Anarchy”) is in it, who is one of the best character actors in the business – if not the best.

 

 

 

Kate Bosworth in "Straw Dogs"

5)     “Straw Dogs”, starring James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, and James Woods.  Yet another remake in a Hollywood that’s shamefully too timid to go with original ideas.  Marsden (“Cyclops” in the first two “X-Men” movies) plays a Hollywood writer who takes his wife, Bosworth (“Superman Returns”) back home to visit the Deep South.  Nordic actor Alexander Skarsgård (“True Blood” and “Generation Kill”) might makes things a bit cooler, but it is probably just another bad horror flick that scares people from visiting the South.  What is Hollywood more scared of – the Deep South or coming up with an original idea?

 

 

 

Ashley Judd and Harry Connick, Jr. in "Dolphin Tale"

6)     “Dolphin Tale”, starring Harry Connick, Jr., Morgan Freeman, and Ashley Judd.  Personally, I wish Harry would get back on the piano.  “Dolphin Tale” is a story about a dolphin that gets caught in a net and is in danger of losing its tail, hence the sickening pun in the title.  Geared specifically for kids, this one is shown in 3D.  But it’s laden with subplots that really don’t have too much to do with the heartwarming main story – a boy and a dolphin.  And, still, nobody cares about the tuna that also gets caught in those nets…

 

 

 

 

All in all, aside from a couple of action flicks, and what looks like a surprisingly good baseball movie, you might be better off hanging with friends on the back porch around the fire pit.  The best bet has got to be the reshowing of “The Lion King” in 3D.  And thus ends the circle of life for this bad article, Simba.

Thanks for taking the time to read this; and stay tuned for more!

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